Chuck Palahniuk heaves a bulging black garbage bag onstage

Palahniuk says nothing as the noise tapers off. Then slowly, calmly, he launches into a reading of his short story, Zombies. It’s about kids using defibrillators to give themselves DIY lobotomies, and it isn’t typical Palahniuk—it’s more of a tear-jerker than a gag-inducer, though it’s got its share of gross-out moments. Palahniuk’s cadence has all the bite of a retired school librarian, but his story is brilliant, and something about his buttoned-up, bookish tone makes the graphic parts seem more illicit.

This is one of the most anticipated events scheduled for the first annual Portland Film Festival, which started Tuesday and will continue through Sunday with screenings, workshops, guest speakers and networking events (see our reviews here). Tonight’s reading is a follow-up to the U.S. premiere of Romance, a short film based on another Palahniuk story and directed by Portlander Andy Mingo.

When Palahniuk is done reading, Mingo Skypes in from Paris. While his wife, Lidia Yuknavitch, promotes her novel Dora: A Headcase, Mingo is scouting locations for a film based on her yet-to-be-released novel, a contemporary retelling of the Joan of Arc story. From the giant screen above the stage, he shares behind-the-scenes details about Romance, the stilted love story of a dumpy stoner and a mentally disabled hot chick that Palahniuk says was inspired by his curiosity about how Sean Penn’s character in I Am Sam ended up with a daughter. The film is bizarre but fairly tame, save a scene on a Portland bus in which the female lead swings a used tampon over her head like a lasso. “I don’t think Trimet really understood what we were doing,” says Mingo, of getting permission to film on the bus.  

Palahniuk dishes on a few upcoming projects, including a graphic novel sequel to Fight Club and Beautiful You, a “mommy porn” romance novel combining excessive filth with flowery language. And when it’s time to say goodbye, Palahniuk returns to that mysterious garbage bag at the edge of the stage, and turns it upside down to release a pile of tiny white stuffed kittens. “They’re cats,” he beams, lobbing handfuls of them into the audience. He doesn’t explain, and as soon as he’s thrown the last feline into the cheering crowd, he’s gone.